Dry and Transition Cows
Death loss at or near calving results in the loss of more than 3.5 million calves each year in the United States. Approximately 45% of this death loss is the result of dystocia or calving difficulty. Often times, the problem is related to a malpresentation of the calf. It is possible to identify the problem, correct it, and have a live calf.
If the calf is correctly positioned for a normal delivery, the majority will be born without any problems. The ability to recognize a normal delivery and presentation is just as important as the ability to recognize an abnormal calf presentation and/or delivery.
In a normal delivery, the front feet appear first with the calf’s head coming between the front legs. After the head appears, the rest of the body usually delivers in two to five minutes.
Assistance is usually not required if the calf is presented in a normal position. If calving starts and there is no progress, it is important to determine the problem and provide proper assistance.
It is important to know with complete confidence, when and how long to leave the cow and when to seek help. If there is no progress in the delivery of the calf after a period of 30 minutes of intense straining, the cow should be examined to determine if the presentation of the calf is normal.
Before examining the cow, carefully wash your hands and arms with a disinfectant soap. Use a plastic sleeve. Also, the vulva and rectum of the cow should be cleaned.
Carefully insert your hand in the vulva to determine the presentation of the calf. If the presentation of the calf is abnormal, it is necessary to correct it or seek help.
The cow will require assistance if you observe any of the following conditions:
- Only the tail of the calf is visible.
- Only the head of the calf is visible.
- The front legs of the calf protrude past the knees but the nose of the calf is not visible.
- The hooves of the calf are upside down.
- You see the head and only one leg of the calf.
- You see more than two feet.
- There is no progress in the calving process after 30 minutes of intense straining.
- The cow quits trying to calve after a short rest period following a period of progress. Normally, a rest period should not last longer than five to 10 minutes.
You should never attempt to pull a calf until the presentation is correct. No more than one person should pull on a calf at a time as it is possible to exert enough pressure to break a bone in the leg. You should never use a tractor, pickup or 4-wheeler to pull a calf. Usually, patience and a little lubricant are sufficient to pull a calf.
If the presentation of the calf is not correct, it is necessary to adjust it until it is correct. If you lack the knowledge or confidence to properly correct the calf’s position, get help from somebody who knows how to handle the situation.
When it is necessary to use obstetrical chains top pull a calf, they must be attached correctly. If the chains are not used correctly, the hoof or leg can be damaged. Obstetrical chains should never be attached solely between the hoof and the dewclaw and the hoof. If the chains are attached solely between the pastern and hoof, it is possible to pull the hoof completely off.
If it is necessary to use a calf puller or calf jack, it is important to use it very carefully. Too much pressure can break or damage the leg. Pressure should be in a slightly downward direction if the cow is standing. This will help the calf pass through the pelvis more easily.
Most importantly, if you are not comfortable handling the situation, get help from somebody that is.
The process of raising healthy calves starts in the maternity area. What takes place in maternity is of critical importance due to the effect it can have in the future health of both, the dam and the calf. It is in this area that we may prevent many subsequent problems that affect the rest of the productive life of the animal, especially that of the calf. We must remember that at the time of calving, the cow suffers a marked drop in immune system function, so she is very susceptible to any type of infection. At the same time, we have a calf that is born without antibodies, and is very susceptible to bacteria and viruses present in that environment. The calf only begins to form antibodies against all those pathogens to which the dam was exposed to, once an appropriate quantity of colostrums has been consumed. For this reason, the maternity area, all the equipment used for calving assistance, and the holding pen for calves, must be kept dry, clean and disinfected.
- Protect the health of the cow by preventing injury and infection
- Birthing of a live calf
- Insuring a healthy start for the calf’s life
The question is, how do we meet these goals? This job, although not easy, requires four basic elements. These elements are:
- meticulous observation
- adequate patience and evaluation
- generous lubrication
- great sanitation
If this last element is missing, it compromises the efficacy of all the other measures taken, including proper nutrition and vaccination.
There are various areas of importance where we must continually monitor and maintain sanitation. One of them is the corrals, whether they are single maternity pens or communal corrals where close-up cows are housed. The cleanliness and comfortability of the bedding in these pens is very important in the prevention of infections in both the cow and the calf. If the bedding in these corrals is kept wet and full of manure, at the time of calving bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella can infect the calf, and even enter the genital tract of the cows when they come in contact with the contaminated bedding.
Individual calving pens should be cleaned and refilled after each calving, and the group pens should be cleaned at least once a day. It is also important to make sure the water troughs are clean and have fresh water. Another area of importance is the sanitation of the equipment used for assisting calving. This equipment must be washed and disinfected after every use. The equipment usually includes:
- Calf jack
- Obstetric chains and handles
- Rubber gloves (disposable)
- Plastic sleeves (disposable)
- Stainless steel bucket
In addition to the sanitation of the equipment, one must clean the genital area of the cow and tie the tail away from it to prevent infection. The vulva of the cow can be washed with iodine soap. This must be done before an evaluation of the calf’s presentation or before assisting a calving. All these steps are of great importance for the health of the animal, because there is no substitute for good hygiene.
If we are having problems with the uterine health of fresh cows or the health of calves, the maternity area may be the source. Obviously there are many other factors, such as transition cow nutrition and vaccination that can be part of the problem. Nevertheless, evaluating the sanitation and condition of the maternity area is a good place to start.
- For example, if we are having calves scouring in the first five days of life, it is very likely they are becoming infected in the maternity area or in the holding pens.
We must then analyze if there are any factors that are causing a greater challenge to the system and make the appropriate adjustments.
- For example, a very important factor in determining how often we should clean the maternity pen is its packing density. If we have this pen above capacity, we run the risk of having more health complications, and we must be more aggressive in their management.
Furthermore, we must check the cow flow of that corral, in other words how long we hold cows in that pen (should be less than 48 hrs). If animals are kept there for too long, one should try to only move cows to the maternity pen when they are eminently due to calve. It is very important that the bedding in these pens is always dry and clean in order to prevent the overgrowth of bacteria.
This is why, if there are more cows in the pen or they are housed there for a longer time, the task of sanitation becomes more challenging, and must be done more frequently. We must also keep in mind that the calf does not only run the risk of infection from contaminated bedding, but also from the dam and other cows in the pen (Coronavirus, Rotovirus, Leptospirois). This is why one should limit the amount of time the calves are left in the maternity pen after birth.
Finally, one must evaluate the pens or hutches where calves are held for drying and await pick up. In these pens calves are commingled, and in many dairies are not properly sanitized.
It is crucial that all these procedures and measures are put together in a written Standard Operating Procedure document for the maternity area. This includes how often the pens must be cleaned, when and how the cow and calves should be moved, and when and how to intervene in a calving. It is clear however, that these procedures can not be properly executed without a well trained person or crew that is available at all times to take responsibility of this critical area of the dairy.